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almost a masterpiece

Jonathan Lethem is a beautiful prose writer. He brings ethereal heights to mundane life in ways that show me he can see—really see—the world around him. His writing points to the incredible beauty and surpassing ugliness all around us, all the time, often contained in the same objects:

The houses here were sick. The Dutch-style row houses had been chopped into pieces and misused as rooming houses for men with hot plates and ashtrays and racing forms, or floor-through apartments, where sprawling families of cousins were crammed into each level, their yards and stoops teeming with uncountable children. The houses had been slathered with linoleum and pressed tin, the linoleum and tin had late been painted, the paint painted again. It was like coating on the tongue and teeth and roof of a mouth. The lines of the rooms, the fine moldings, had been broken by slapdash walls to make hallways, the bathrooms had had Sears Roebuck shower stalls wedged into them, the closets had been turned into kitchens. The hallways had been pissed.

Maybe that doesn’t evoke the beauty hidden in apparent neglect for you, but it does for me.

In The Fortress of Solitude, Lethem uses this ability to write about growing up in Brooklyn, about parents who don’t pay attention to their children, about friendship, the mysteries of dating and sex, being cool, and being bullied. The protagonist, Dylan, negotiates all this with his best friend and protector, Mingus, who seems as inseparably linked to “cool” as Dylan is dorky and helpless in the face of being “yoked” by any passing bully with the inclination to terrorize. But the terror goes away; being yoked becomes normal, even boring for Dylan, if still embarrassing when it happens in front of other people—especially a date. Apart from Dylan’s mother, who disappears early in the book, Mingus is the only one who can prevent Dylan from losing all the decoy dough he doesn’t put in his shoe. Mingus more or less protects Dylan through most of grade school, into adolescence, and still later, though Mingus’ ability to do so successfully is called into question.

The protecting, the friendship, the bullying—it’s all tied up with race. Dylan is white; Mingus, and all the yokers, are black. Soon after they move to their Brooklyn home, young Dylan wonders “guiltily why the white girls on skates hadn’t called to him instead” of dark-skinned Marilla, the proto-rapping, female force of the block on which Dylan lives. All the popular kids are black and Dylan learns to yearn for blackness. Later in life, his girlfriend knows he’s “collecting [her] for the color of [her] skin.” What exactly Lethem’s personal stake in racial issues is, I can’t say, but I respect his attempt to write about race and I admire him for asking, at the story’s final climax, one of the most heart-rending, troubling, difficult questions we can ask in the United States today: “What age is a black boy when he learns that he’s scary?” In the novel, the question is layered with so much meaning for Dylan and Mingus that, as a white reader, I felt I understood a little of its power in a way I never could have outside the book.

And yet, with all his talent and all the power of the issues he tries to address, somehow Lethem fails to reach the potential I felt from the book’s opening lines. I have been struggling to express just exactly how he fails. I’m not having any more success than Lethem did. The book feels unfocused. It feels like he is trying to face some demons, but, perhaps as a result, doesn’t keep the distance needed to make a truly great book. Fortress is a very good book that could have been a classic.

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